William Edgar White, USMC
Contributed by Charles White
William Edgar White served as a marine aboard the Auxiliary Cruiser
during the Spanish American War. This article tells of his and his crewmates'
lives aboard the vessel during the war.
Part of the U.S. preparation for the Spanish American War was to convert a number of vessels to serve as auxiliary cruisers with the U.S. Navy. One of the vessels converted was the El Norte, which was renamed YANKEE. The ship was manned by a crew of three hundred enlisted men and a Marine guard. The majority of the enlisted crew were members of the New York Naval Militia
Two hundred and twenty five Reservists, from the New York Naval Militia, were called up the 26th of April 1898 and sent to the U.S.S. New Hampshire, a receiving ship moored at the end of a East River dock. An interesting note about this group other than they signed papers and became regular Navy is their livelihoods. Most were well-to-do, such as clerks, brokers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and similar members of society, not used to dirtying their hands. A number of new recruits were added to this contingent to make the ship's roster total about three hundred men. The ships officers were generally officers of the U.S. Navy, not naval militia.
The ship's company was divided into messes of from fifteen to thirty men each. They had a mess chest for each mess; an enameled iron plate, cup, knife, fork, and spoon for every man in the mess. Each mess had a "berth deck cook" who prepared the food for the galley, and a mess caterer or striker to help the mess cook. There was twenty minutes allowed for meals, which most of the time consisted of "salt-horse," rice, beans, hard-tack, coffee, and some times dried fruit, and was expended by the pay-master out of the nine dollars allowed each man each month by the navy for rations. Their pay was thirty five dollars a month.
One of the regular rates was Master-at-Arms and he was referred to as "Jimmy Legs". He was responsible for discipline and cohesion. He was often heard to say "shake a leg there!", "clear the deck!". His job was a difficult one with the less experienced members of the Naval Militia aboard. His way was eased somewhat by the other regular navy personnel as well as the vessel's marine contingent.
William Edgar White was transferred from Marine Barracks at Annapolis, the United States Naval Academy in Maryland on April 28, 1898. He left his wife Amanda and his eighteen month old daughter Ruth behind. He was among about 28 men of the Marine Guard that was already aboard the YANKEE when the ship's crew arrived. The ship was commissioned, and on the ninth day of May left Brooklyn Navy Yard. Several days later, at sea, General Quarters was sounded for the first time and a squad of marines dashed from the "barracks" below and lined up at secondary battery guns on the forecastle. Another drill!
On May 30 the marines were called up for gunnery practice on the
port forecastle six-pounders. J. J. Murray, a marine corporal, acting as
gun captain, fired the gun three or four times and after being loaded again,
it misfired. The misfire was caused by the unstable cordite in the shell.
After a reasonable time, J. J. Murray took his place at the breech, while
No. 2 unlocked the plug and swung it open. The misfire exploded, wounding
two and killing Murray.
In the navy, the hammock which serves the living as a bed by night is also their coffin and their shroud in death and so served Corporal Murray. In the evening, the crew was piped for the burial ceremony. He was committed to the deep by the reading of the Episcopal service. A salute, three times repeated, was fired by sixteen of his Marine guard comrades.
Six weeks from commissioning, the YANKEE was in Cuban waters, more General Quarters, fire, abandon ship, and such other drills were conducted, and performed with more serious intent. Then "clear ship for action" was called, it meant clear the deck and prepare the ship generally for battle. All wood was put away or throw overboard since the danger of splinters was great. The Marine Guard, firing the forecastle six-pounders, manned their guns on June 6, but this time, it was no drill. It was the first of a series engagements in which they were to take part which also included the following engagements: June 7, 1898, Guantanamo; June 13, 1898, Cienfuegos; and June 20,1898, Casilda Harbor. The marines also supplied forces to serve as part of a prize force on five sloops that comprised a fishing fleet operating out of the Isle of Pines.
The war in Cuba was soon over and the YANKEE made a last trip to New York and home. They docked at League Island, Pa. on August 29,1898. The Militia was given a parade in New York City and was mustered out. No more beans and hard tack, no more 35 dollars a month. William White wore the same canvas duck uniform, washed it on the deck on his hands and knees, ate the same chow, probably even helped coal the ship, the same as the Militia. He was transferred from the YANKEE September 23, 1898, the day before his 27th birthday.
The YANKEE was under the command of
Commander W. H. Brownson. The other officers aboard ship including Executive
officer Lieutenant Hubbard, Surgeon McGowan and Lieutenants, Duncan, Green,
and Bernard who served as Division Officers, aided by Ensigns Dimock and
Andrews. The marines were under the command of First Lieutenant Joseph
H. Pendleton, Second Lieutenant L. A. Frothingham, and Corporals John.
J. Murray, and Charles L. Eickman.
Military Records of William Edgar White
Lewis, H. H., A Gunner Aboard the Yankee (New York: Doubleday and McClure Co., 1898).